What is Effective in Adult Basic Skills Education?

Hello program management, teaching, professional development, and research colleagues,

You may not be aware that a major study is under way to determine what is effective in adult education.  The "Assessing Evidence of Effectiveness in Adult Education: Design Study" began in 2018 and will continue throughout 2020.  The study team asks for your input (see below) and I would also be interested in what you see as priorities for this research. Please share your ideas here.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Program Management group


From a flyer about the study:

Assessing Evidence of Effectiveness in Adult Education: Design Study
National Assessment of Adult Education

Why conduct this study?
Adult education programs aim to help adults acquire the skills needed to be productive and engaged citizens. To help adults succeed, it is important to understand what works for adult education programs and adult learners. The U.S. Department of Education is undertaking a study to examine the effectiveness of priority adult education programs and services. Specifically, Congress has mandated that the U.S. Department of Education evaluate important adult education practices, approaches, and strategies to understand how they impact participants. This study will provide policy-relevant information to Congress, as well as to states and programs seeking guidance on proven strategies.

Purpose of the study
The study will:

  • Review the research on effective strategies in adult education
  • Identify practices, approaches, or strategies that are priorities for evaluation
  • Design future evaluations that could provide important information about the effects of the priority interventions

Who is conducting the study?
The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, in partnership with the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) is sponsoring this study. Mathematica Policy Research was selected to lead this study, partnering with Manhattan Strategy Group (MSG) and Social Policy Research Associates (SPR). Mathematica is a nonpartisan research firm that designs studies, collects data, and conducts analysis for governments, foundations, and the private sector.

We want your input
We want to hear from adult education directors and staff about your priorities:

  • What adult education practices, approaches, or strategies are important to study and why?
  • Are there any new program models, policies, or strategies your state or program is considering adopting?
  • Is your state or program doing anything innovative that could be scaled up?
  • How can you share your ideas?

To share your suggestions or learn more about the study, please contact the study team at: AdultEdStudy@mathematica-mpr.com.



I'm definitely interested in learning what high impact practices (HIPs) we can better incorporate into adult education. I've learned about some at the college level and think these can definitely be incorporated. My program has a focus on active learning in the classroom and we are also developing more distance learning options. I would like to learn more about how to better adopt this program or state-wide. It's difficult sometimes to transition with instructors who have taught one way their entire careers. 

I am also interested in minority instructors. At least in many programs in my state, the majority is white female instructors. I wonder if this is similar in other places. Does this affect our students? 

David, I know we'll learn a great deal from this study. I hope that it is conducted from a variety of perspectives that include current and former adults in our programs. Ideally, some great innovative practices will show up for replication.

Our current models of effective practices include those that are either mandated by or encouraged by funders. WIOA advocates instruction that integrates occupational interests and career-pathway choices with academic development. In recent years, we have strongly advocated differentiation based on abilities and preferences. Acceleration has also been a theme to help busy adults acquire skills outside of the semester or other time frames imposed by institutions. That trend relies heavily on technology to reach people where they are and when they can contribute. Scaffolding is another theme, along with top up or bottom down instruction. One of the biggest trends in current years among all ages has been to require student-centered and active-learning environments and approaches.

Malcom Knowles has been challenged over the years, but much of what he shared about adult learners has been supported, including that fact that adults learn to the extent that what is taught relates to their interests, experiences, and goals. In the same way, the idea that instruction should appeal to multiple intelligences and learning styes has been challenged but continues to be supported, presumably, because instructors believe they are worth considering.

Hopefully, the study will explore the extent to which all of those approaches and dozens of others produce results (or not) in different settings. Are results dependent upon background, environment, native language, culture, personality, preferences, instructor skills, mind composition, things like availability of technology and digital instruction, or other variables? Since we are talking about people here, I know that there won't be one answer. However, hopefully, the study will unearth questions that we need to consider. I love questions far more than answers! :) Leecy